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I got a half gallon of milk a week ago on a complex chain of errands, came home, and put away all the groceries.  Except the milk.  The next day, I saw it still in the bag, considered throwing it right out, and reconsidered after opening it and sniffing.  It did not go bad before I finished it; mostly on Bran Flakes.  I considered this to be some sort of miracle.

Humans are nearly unique in even considering milk as adults, but I’m not going to talk about that here.  Milk is the most biologically active thing we consume in large quantities.  That is, as a liquid of near neutral pH loaded with edible proteins, it is a ripe candidate for bacterial growth.  Pasteurization, slow heating of milk to retard bacterial growth, had been in use since 1773.  Without refrigeration, the only part of milk that could be kept was the buttercream that floated to the top of fresh milk. Unrefrigerated milk had to be drunk fresh, at room temperature, or cooked into baking recipes or chowders.  Frankly, the act of drinking milk was probably akin to drinking blood or urine.

If you wanted milk, you had to know someone with a a cow.  Even as cities grew to spectacular densities through the 1800s, cows, chickens and pigs were still roaming within or pent up near the city.  The markets were just too good there, and they were a self propelled trash collection service.  In the mid to late 1800s as real estate became more precious and cities grew beyond walking distance from downtown to countryside, milk had to be shipped into cities if cities were going to have milk.  The problem was that this will was no longer fresh, and the bacteria were already multiplying within it as urban citizens were drinking it.  Sickness and even death were possible outcomes, for thousands of citizens every year.

Pasteurization got better with a process of slow heating in 1886.  This allowed cows to be milked less carefully, and in greater numbers, with the assurance that any bacteria introduced in the milking and collection would be knocked out for at least a few days.  Pasteurization saved thousands of lives and tens of thousands of city dwellers from days of sickness.

The problem was that pasteurization also made much of the calcium in milk insoluble, and removes ~20% of the iodine*.  Less nutritious milk was of course less of a problem than more dangerous milk, so pasteurize we did.  City and state governments were soon requiring all milk to be pasteurized, no matter how close you lived to the cow.

Meanwhile, commercial and home refrigeration progressed from hunks of ice to gas and then electric refrigerators starting in 1911, over a decade after pasteurization of milk had been codified into law.  Now, almost every kitchen in America has a working refrigerator.  We can retard bacterial growth through cold as well as heat, and continuously instead of initially.  Even the facilities that milk the cows and the trucks that deliver the milk are refrigerated.  You have to try hard to drink sour or bad milk in America these days. 

Refrigeration and high speed freight makes it possible for us to safely consume food from thousands of miles away.  Think of sushi.  Even if you don’t like it, I am living proof that it does not kill you.

We codified into law that “milk should be pasteurized” over a century ago, and have built an ideological and bureaucratic apparatus up to ensure that “raw” milk is seen as akin to antifreeze in its health effects.  Bureaucracies do not serve the public interest when they are founded on and base their perpetual values on an outmoded set of rules.  They actively stifle business and  opportunities when they work to apply those old rules to even better technologies.  I do not reflexively district regulations and bureaucracies, but I do when they are wedded to old paradigms in denial of new opportunities.  

It is the business of governments that their people be safe and prosperous.  Regulations can and do sacrifice that prosperity for the sake of safety.  Sometimes they even sacrifice both, when they are wedded to a hoary technological assumption.  Like “We need to reduce overcrowding in the cities”.  A laudable goal in 1900, a mission accomplished by 1970, a dangerous automaton today.

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This post was inspired by something that happened to us last week.  All items have been changed to protect the righteous, the wicked and the weak.

* There is a lot of “woo” I will spare you about the “benefits” of raw milk.

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